A bit of time on your hands? Sun shining? Have a blog that needs livening up? Time to put on some walking shoes, grab the camera, and head out for a walk. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be walking the Capital Ring, which runs in a loop right around (roughly) inner London. Officially, it starts at Woolwich, but since it passes a few minutes from my home in Charlton, that’s where I started, and it’s where I’ll finish.
It’s not the first time I’ve walked along this route – a few years ago I followed its south-east London incarnation as the Green Chain Walk, covering a stretch from Charlton to Crystal Palace in a single, summer Sunday. So this first stretch was on largely familiar territory, but, on the whole, it was a pleasure to renew my acquaintance.
Like in Charlton Park, for example. I’m no more than 10 minutes walk away from there, but I rarely visit – this is what happens when you live on a steep hill. Jacobean Charlton House is a amazing building and its immediate surroundings make for a beautiful little park that’s a a bit of a secret if you don’t know the area. Charlton Park itself is no great shakes, but as a place to stretch your legs it does the job. The old running track I knew from primary school sports days has now been ripped up and replaced with some open-air gym stuff which was getting a decent workout from holidaying youngsters.
A short walk through quiet residential streets takes you to its poor relation, Hornfair Park – from there, there’s a passage through a fence and onto Woolwich Common, long associated with the military and now subject to the din of the South Circular and ambulances heading to and from Queen Elizabeth Hospital, a privately funded hospital which has since proved to be a financial disaster. Close by is the world’s most misleadingly-named housing development, Greenwich Heights, former army flats redeveloped just before the last property boom started and promoted with maps which managed to miss off the word “Woolwich” from where the place was.
Were it not for the noise, Woolwich Common, with its bushes and butterflies, would feel miles from the city. But just over the hedge is the old Royal Military Academy – now being turned into housing for the well-off – and dodging the South Circular’s awful drivers is necessary to reach the slopes of Shooters Hill and its woods – Castlewood, Jackwood, and Oxleas Woods. Ah, and here comes some mud.
These ancient woods were nearly partially destroyed by Margaret Thatcher’s government, which wanted to drive a motorway through them. The plans were headed off two decades ago, but there’s the suspicion that these woods could do with some more care – Severndroog Castle, a 17th century folly closed by Greenwich Council in 1988, looks in an awful state, although lottery funds have been made available for campaigners to restore it. The ornamental garden beyond it, meanwhile, is a graffiti-covered mess. Through the woods to the little cafe on Oxleas Meadow for an ice cream, and it hasn’t lost its charm in the few years since I’ve been there. “Ain’t got no vanilla!”
It is too misty today to take in the stunning view into Kent from the meadow, so it’s off into the woods again, across where a motorway junction could have been, and finally out into Eltham Park, bisected by a road development which did take place – the Rochester Way Relief Road of the mid-1980s.
Here we hit a patch of stately suburbia which, with a bit more love, could look like some forbidding private estate. Instead, it’s just Eltham. Crossing the Bexley Road takes you past the sports fields and stables of Butterfly Lane, and it’s right to Conduit Meadow and the conduit head behind Southend Crescent – again, looking like it’s seen better days, despite being a Grade II listed building.
The conduit head controlled the flow of water to Eltham Palace, 10 minutes’ walk away. Eltham Palace is one of two local attractions I’ve never set foot in (the other is the Old Royal Naval College) – set well off the beaten track, it always had restricted opening hours and never particularly sprung to mind as a place to visit.
But walking around here is always rewarding, because past here is King John’s Walk, through paddocks and stables and with a surprising view across London. I always think that here must be like how London’s suburbs were in the 1920s and 1930s – semis going up around rural land still in use. There’s a sign here indicating what can be seen here – including, oddly, a clear view of west London’s Trellick Tower – but, yup, it’s scrawled over with graffiti.
From here, it’s a quick stroll through the run-down Middle Park Estate, over the A20, and into Mottingham – and a complete change of scene, with big houses and leafy streets. Cricketer WG Grace lived in this street, Rio Ferdinand’s mum resides nearby. The walk has now crossed into the borough of Bromley – something that matters on these strolls, since Greenwich Council is pretty good at making sure its walks are signposted, a dedication not always shared by its neighbours. But the direction is clear enough as the walk turns left into a path between Eltham College‘s playing fields and a big paddock. The huge fences on either side keep you in your place.
And from here, the walk gets less exciting. Emerging in Marvels Lane, Grove Park, I find a man trying to walk to Grove Park station in completely the wrong direction. I attempt to put him straight, and then discover the reason why – one of the signs is pointing the wrong way. A few years back, I took a route through pretty Chinbrook Meadows to do this walk – the Capital Ring, though, now winds through tatty suburbia. The river Quaggy gurgles through an ugly concrete channel, a group of youths jeer at an older man they almost run over.
This bit isn’t much fun. Upon hitting Baring Road and its buses, I decide to call it a day – there’ll be better terrain to come. I’ll be picking this walk up again on Friday – you’re welcome to join me on Twitter or even AudioBoo if you fancy it. (Although I’m due to be in company then, so I’m not sure if that nonsense will be tolerated.) And if you live elsewhere on the Capital Ring and fancy a stroll – let me know, a tour guide might be handy.